Lifting The Cloak Of Private Equity Secrecy

June 26th, 2017

 

 

How do you tell whether a private equity investor is “absolutely credible”? Realised investments, success stories, lists of co-investors, testimonials, references etc. are all valuable but can I actually see their intellectual property? I am referring to the availability of tangible communications (articles, presentations, models, audio, video etc.) encapsulating the investor’s best ideas, experiences, education, managing cultural change etc. – their intellectual capital – synthesised or recombined  into value for the would-be seller or top management. In almost all cases, the answer is a resounding “no”. You are asked to take it on trust.

I asked a serial CEO, and now Board Chair and Senior Adviser to many of the world’s largest private equity firms, how the secrecy helps the private equity investor? He was largely at a loss to explain it apart from avoidance of past PR bloody noses.

Would you allow a surgeon to operate on your heart or the school to teach your child without a pretty clear understanding of how they think and operate, beyond the odd PowerPoint presentation or a few lunches? The time has come for more humility from private equity investors of all shades. That doesn’t require them to diminish their own worth rather to accept that greater transparency upfront is an accelerant to higher levels of trust with their key constituents and superior short and long-term performance.

© James Berkeley 2017.

In The Eye of A Private Investor

June 5th, 2017

 

You are a C-suite executive or senior manager (probably with a successful career in a mid and large organisation) flirting with future advisory roles (Operating Partners, Senior Advisers and so forth) with private investors (Family Offices, Ultra High Net Worth individuals and some funds) and their portfolio companies. I meet half a dozen a month. Are you looking through your lens or that of the investor’s? When I ask bluntly, “why would a private investor be interested in you?”, most default to regaling their past (skills, expertise, accomplishments) or they way they like to work (imparting advice, influence, guidance). Here is the tough news, most private investors really don’t care. They want to know about

  • the “transformative value” (TV) for the investor after the Adviser has applied their past to the future of their investee businesses (logical reasoning – increased revenues, stronger brand, faster growth etc.)
  • the speed and quality of the “validation” (V) for the investor’s own reasons to back or not, a specific business (emotional reasoning – “am I going to look good”, enhanced credibility, mitigate personal risks, obtain future opportunities or relationships with peers, other investors, investee businesses etc.).

TV * V = Private Investor’s return on investment or “Great Deal”

“What”, “where”, “when” do you score highest as a potential Senior Adviser? Why? How do you get to those private investors with the highest need for that value?

Keep that equation and those critical questions uppermost in mind BEFORE you walk into your first meeting with a private investor.

© James Berkeley 2017

Trusting Relationships Trump A Deal

June 2nd, 2017

 

Donald Trump follows through on one of his campaign promises and there are cries of “quelle horreur” and “nein” from his European partners, at the mere thought of any re-negotiation. It begs the very same question in your business, are you putting too much emphasis on signing a contract, and too little on continuing to nurture a peer-level trusting relationship and creating alternatives, where the original signatories (investor, customer, employee or business partner) may change, and the anticipated value derived from the deal is in all likelihood a long way in the future?

© James Berkeley 2017.

 

 

Empty Partnership Offers

June 1st, 2017

 

“I am flattered that you would consider partnering with us, here is how it might work…”

 

I have sat with six experienced private investors and bankers talking to entrepreneurs and executives with impressive mid-market and small businesses in the past month. Universally, their entire approach bar one notable exception, is driven by a poverty mindset and fear. “How can we minimise our risk, our upfront investment, our commitment (time, cash, resources and so forth)  and get the other partner to show us their true worth while exerting maximum control?” It is not what you say or the other partner hears that matters, it is how you act.  If you really are a prudent risk taker, act like a peer and let go of the fear. Otherwise stop wasting everyone’s valuable time.

© James Berkeley 2017.

Cracks In The Nest

May 31st, 2017

Attached to my Parents loggia at their country home is a retractable sunshade that provides welcome shade to the outside dining area. This winter, a bluetit created a nest in one end of the sunshade, the giveaway was a few cracked shells lieing on the cobbled stones below. This past weekend’s warm weather created the need to open the sunshade and from the nest flew three small bluetits with their Mother hovering nearby. Unfortunately, the cat spotted one of the chicks later in the afternoon and it didn’t make it back to safety.

A huge number of venture businesses are currently incubated in what appear to be “safe” homes for innovation (corporate accelerator, incubator and venture funds), yet the opposite is true. When the overriding “need” arises to focus on the corporate organisation’s key strategic area (sales growth, capital allocation etc.), many of those early-stage venture will be deemed irrelevant, too weak to survive or fall prey to others. Insurance, financial services and the broader “Internet of Things” businesses are particularly vulnerable, yet most people are looking in the exact opposite direction. No one can predict precisely when that might be but history tells us it will happen. What entrepreneurs would be wise to consider is:

  • Why is this the right home for us today, not when we started? (access to capital, talent, innovation, markets, leadership etc.)
  • What changes (foreseen or unforeseen) in the Corporate organisation’s circumstances (balancing short and long-term profitable growth and their investors’ demands) would dramatically change their opinion?
  • Are our preventative (lines of communication) and contingent measures (Plans B and C) sufficiently robust (speed and quality) to safeguard our firm and its’ investors future should our corporate support end at short notice?

Far too many entrepreneurs are so immersed in building their businesses today, they are overlooking the risks attached to “building a home within a corporate home”, at their peril.

© James Berkeley 2017

 

 

The Uncomfortable PE Investor

May 19th, 2017

Whoever taught a young investor how to create great relationships? The thought dawned on me leaving a meeting with two forty-something European mid-market private equity investors. One was open, welcoming, used self-disclosure and possessed a mindset that actively encouraged reciprocal exchange of ideas, names and insights. The other, hid behind a corporate ethos of privacy, rarely showed interest in reciprocity and maintained a mindset that he knew everyone worth knowing. The former is a top performing fund manager running a $500M fund with over 6 closed deals in the public domain this past 18 months, the latter recently closed his first $200M fund with zero visible public success. If you were a limited partner or an entrepreneur, wouldn’t you have expected the exact opposite traits given the track record and profile?

Private equity is first and foremost a relationship business. Relationships based on trust and value. Developed by creating a seductive rapport (personal chemistry, powerful intellect, effective use of language) with entrepreneurs, limited partners and advisers. Manifest by converting that seductive rapport into deals closed, value created and profitable exits that create a “win-win” situation for the firm’s key constituents. Yet it seems a great many leaders in European private equity firms are totally complacent about their fund managers’ relationship building skills and behaviours, believing that financial acumen and capital alone will lure outstanding entrepreneurs with outstanding businesses. That is crap but hey, they’ll wait for 10 years to find the errors of their ways. In which time, the Fund Manager will have collected his monthly check, been promoted twice and sit smugly admiring his or her personal bank statement.

© James Berkeley 2017. All Rights Reserved.

 

Fake News: HR

May 2nd, 2017

A KPMG co-promoted piece, in an otherwise interesting London business magazine, The Informer, carries a sub-title, “Meet the game changers having real influence on business strategy”. It references the creation of the Chief Human Resource Officer title, and its’ rising importance “as the person who enables the business strategy alongside the other “C” roles.” It cites as hard evidence, two people in a Harvard Business Review article, Mary Barra (CEO of General Motors, lasted 18 months in HR part of a 25+ year career) and Anne Mulcahy (past CEO of Xerox, lead the HR function part of her early management development). Prizes, if you can name any others, who came close to that position or truly “enabled” business strategy in an organisation you worked for or advised? I can give you 500 CEO examples, who spent most of their career in sales, marketing, finance or operational management responsibilities.

Then it states that the proportion of HR functions in FTSE 100 businesses led today by a career HR person has risen from 69% to 80%, “demonstrating relevant experience is vital in the current climate”. Since when has deep experience in a silo function been critical in a complex and ambiguous environment? Shouldn’t critical people decisions and accountability be in the hands of the line mangers directly responsible for implementing an organisation’s strategy? I have met and advised hundreds of HR leaders in some of the world’s finest businesses. I can count on two hands the number of individuals, who were outstanding.

This sort of article does consultants a disfavour because a large, respected consulting brand doesn’t ask the tough questions about clients, who pay it billions of dollars. It trumpets weak evidence and it suggests an alternative that is largely without merit.

© James Berkeley 2017. All Rights Reserved.

 

Sleepwalking In Business

April 28th, 2017

 

My young daughter is going through a period of arriving in our bedroom unannounced in the middle of the night, oblivious to her propensity for sleepwalking or the dangers that lie in her pathway. In almost every high-growth or mid-market business I review for investors, there are instances where the firm is consciously doing things (excessive customer needs analysis), which result in the business “landing” in unfavourable locations (slower client acquisition times), and dramatically increasing the risk for investors (cashflow). Look around your business and ask yourself a simple question, “If it was my money at stake, what would we stop doing tomorrow or do more efficiently?” Then, “why do I not bring this to my direct report and colleagues’ attention?” It is easy to blame others but great businesses are built on high levels of personal accountability at all levels that have zero to do with how much I am paid or my title.

© James Berkeley 2017. All Rights Reserved.

 

Profit In A False Sense of Security

April 26th, 2017

 

I am fascinated by the probable cause when owners, Boards and top management in mid-market businesses (US$10M to US$Bn), “don’t take the money” and shortly thereafter, end up with a failing or failed business. Specifically, when a serious offer is made for growth capital or even an outright sale of the business, and in the next 6-12 months after the refusal, the fortunes of the business partially or totally collapse. Nowhere is this more visible than today’s high growth private tech businesses (the infamous “unicorns”) and in an often overlooked area, service businesses with a powerful owner-operator or managing partner in a partnership structure.

The decision-making factors are consistent throughout. The business has deliberated carefully or taken an opportunistic approach to accepting external capital or key talent. What has varied is the owners’, the Board’s  and/or top management’s judgement, resilience or trust over time. Faced with changing market conditions (regulation, technological and other convergent forces), a key client “win” or “loss”, rising/declining investor or trade interest and so on, there is a discernible change. They consciously ignore other’s prudent advice that they have implicitly trusted in the past (mitigating risk). They increasingly believe that they are “impregnable” in their market position (market hype or vanity investments). They allow common sense to be distorted by inflated but unsubstantiated talk (valuations, growth prospects, barriers to entry, unique technology etc.).

Having worked with six privately-held mid-market businesses over the past 3 years around the globe, who turned down offers and subsequently, experienced very public falls from grace (legal, e-commerce, hotels, gaming, financial services), the underlying “cause” in my experience is ultimately, poor leadership. It is people, not the business that have screwed up.

For my current and prospective clients reading this, who fear my strategic advice comes with a poison in the tail, rest assured I have had a great many more winners than losers!

Yet in the immediate aftermath of a partial or total business failure, there is a rush to assume that the firm’s opportunistic or conservative approach to accepting new capital or talent is the “cause”. That is inaccurate, and here is why. There are a great many successful businesses, who have been consistent in adopting diametrically opposed approaches to accepting external capital or ownership (in insurance, AJ Gallagher vs Hub International, in hotels, Peninsula vs. Fairmont Raffles, or in the premium art business, Christie’s vs Sotheby’s). In just the same way, sticking to niche products, services or geographies or constantly, adopting a diversification approach, is rarely the “cause” of failure.

Take great care in jumping to a conclusion. Profit is to be found, as many smart long-short investors have found, in looking out for a business owner’s, the Board’s and/or top management’s increasing false sense of security, the resulting changes in their behaviour and the positive/negative impact on their business and the competition.

© James Berkeley 2017. All Rights Reserved.

 

Exclusive Invite: Private Equity International’s Operating Partners Forum

April 13th, 2017

Intrigued by what a private equity operating partner does, the value they create and the critical issues (digital, strategic, operational) in European private equity now and the next 12 months? Here is an exclusive invitation.

I am back for a third year moderating a panel session (3/4 May, 2017 IOD London) with a great cast that includes a former CEO of one of Europe’s top-ranked private equity firms, a Cambridge-educated Austrian doing great work in infrastructure investing and an Italian transforming the fortunes of a German Family Office. If you have an iota of interest in value creation, join me at Europe’s pre-eminent event featuring 70+ operating partners and 30+ limited partners in intimate surroundings.

http://www.cvent.com/events/operating-partners-forum-europe-2017/event-summary-c2532f5d6ccc4666acd807e72568cbf0.aspx

Here is a deal, sign up using this code and receive a 15% discount off the registration fee (OPspeaker17) PLUS for the first six subscribers I am buying breakfast on Day 2. There are currently 4 seats remaining.

There is no other such gathering for the remainder of the year. If you are unable to make it but interested in receiving a quick “free” checklist of the key takeaways, drop me a note to james@elliceconsulting.com. I’ll make sure that you are on the distribution list.

© James Berkeley 2017. All Rights Reserved.